By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Entertainment Editor
Bill Tapia, the ukulele virtuoso who had become almost as much of an icon as the instrument he played, died last Friday at his home in Westminster. Tapia, who would have turned 104 on Jan. 1, reportedly passed away in his sleep.
The ukulele had been in existence in Hawaii for barely 30 years when Tapia was born in the Liliha neighborhood of Honolulu in 1908. Both he and the small, guitar-like instrument that would be forever associated with him shared a Portuguese heritage.
Tapia had continued to tour until his health sidelined him late last year. For decades, he had taught ukulele several days a week in Westminster and volunteered his time at the Oasis Senior Center in Corona Del Mar to conduct weekly classes.
To put his career and longevity into perspective, Tapia was performing when the ukulele enjoyed its first heyday in the 1920s, then faded into obscurity. When interest in the four-string rose in recent years – due largely to the success of Jake Shimabukuro and the late Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwo’ole – Tapia was front and center, showing the instrument’s quality and versatility.
He was believed to be the oldest touring musician in the world, having entertained troops during World War I. He collaborated with some of the immortals of music, including Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby and Elvis Presley. He outlived them all and was a wealth of experience and information for modern players.
While he is often classified as a jazz musician, Tapia’s range was remarkable, also encompassing swing, pop, rock & roll and classic Hawaiian standards – most of which he played when they were first written.
In a 2005 Rafu Shimpo interview, Tapia explained how he had been forgotten in Hawaii, which was natural, considering most if not all of his friends had passed away.
“All the guys who are my age are gone — they forgot to breathe,” he joked.
Tapia began playing the uke in 1915, when he bought one for the sum of 75 cents, half of what famed maker Manuel Nunes wanted for it.
Playing on the streets of Honolulu for tips, Tapia showed a remarkable aptitude for the ukulele, wowing passersby by playing “The Stars and Stripes Forever” while holding the ukulele behind his neck.
At the age 12, he dropped out of school and joined a vaudeville group, playing mostly at local hotels. He secured work at the Royal Hawaiian, where he also worked as a driver, often performing for guests on the hood of his car.
After moving to California, he found that ukulele had long been out of fashion, so he took up guitar and worked as a little-known musician from the Islands. He faded into obscurity for decades until someone heard the then 90-something Tapia strumming on a ukulele in an Orange County music shop. Those who were listening encouraged him to take up performing again and the rebirth of his career was under way.
“I was downhearted and feeling blue, and I didn’t want to play. But everyone said I should continue,” Tapia said in 2005. “I’m in my right mind and I get around okay, though I have my problems like anybody else.”
Tapia’s depression was the result of outliving his only daughter, Cleo, in 1999 and the 2001 death of his wife of 64 years, Barbara Perreira. His withdrawal and comeback are chronicled in the 2004 documentary “To You Sweetheart, Aloha,” produced and directed by former USC film school cohorts S. Leo Chiang and Mercedes Coats. Rather than being a textbook portrait of a musician, it focuses on the years of Tapia’s life between the ages of 94 and 96.
He continued to perform past the age of 100, regularly including his signature playing behind-the-head trick in his performances. His centennial was celebrated with a concert at the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro. He was inducted into the Ukulele Hall of Fame in 2004 and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts this year.
Tapia, in spite of how long he had performed, never recorded until his first album, “Tropical Swing,” in 2004. Three CDs followed, and the man widely known as the “Duke of Uke” continued to credit his modest instrument for giving him a second lease on life.
“I was brought up with the ukulele,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “I guess I’ll end with a ukulele.”